Overview of Sexual Assault And Sexual Violence

Sexual violence is when someone forces, coerces, or manipulates another person into sexual acts against their will.  This can happen at any age and affects people of all races, genders, religions, incomes, and abilities.  Children, the elderly, and those with physical or cognitive impairments are more vulnerable to being sexually exploited.  Types of sexual assault include sexual assault/rape, child molestation and incest, sex trafficking, intimate partner sexual assault/domestic violence, unwanted sexual touch or contact such as groping, sexual harassment, the showing of one’s genitals or naked body without consent, masturbating in public, or watching a sexual act without permission.  People who have been sexually assaulted usually know the offender, but the violence can also be perpetrated by a stranger.  It is possible for sexual violence/sexual coercion to take place within a committed relationship or marriage.  These situations may be more confusing, and the person may not understand that a sexual assault has been committed.  Sexual assault is often underreported to law enforcement and many people are unwilling to share their experience with friends, family, or professionals.   Shame, embarrassment, fear of not being believed, social stigma, fear of retaliation from the attacker, pressure from others to stay silent, distrust of law enforcement, believing that justice will not be served/that there is a lack of evidence, and a desire to protect the offender are all factors.  While accurate rates of sexual assault are unknown, it is estimated that approximately a third of women worldwide will experience sexual violence at some point in their lives.  It is much harder to gauge the prevalence of sexual violence among males due to a much higher degree of stigma with a significantly lower rate of reporting.

Many conditions can develop following sexual assault such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, substance abuse, self-harming behaviors, eating disorders, or PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).  Some people may become withdrawn and fearful, while others act out and become irritable, agitated, or aggressive.  Depending on the person, s/he may become very fearful of sexual intimacy while others may become promiscuous.  Those who commit acts of sexual violence may have been victims once and perpetuate the cycle of abuse.

What is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a mental health therapy pioneered by the psychologist Francine Shapiro in the 1980s.  She noticed that distressful emotions became less intense while moving her eyes and used the principle of rapid eye movements as a therapeutic tool to resolve trauma.  Unlike traditional talk therapy, EMDR relies upon eye movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation (stimulating both sides) to engage the brain and process traumas that have continued to have a strong emotional impact on the client.  Using eye movements or other bilateral stimulation such as bilateral music, the clients is distracted from the trauma while recalling it and the brain is able to digest memories that have become “stuck”.  It is thought that the eye movements stimulate the same process that happens during Rapid Eye Movement sleep, a sleep cycle in which memories are processed and traumas are resolved.  Though originally designed for PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and most effective at resolving symptoms linked to single trauma, EMDR has been found to benefit a wide array of conditions including grief, OCD, depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders.  Because many conditions manifest in reaction to trauma or difficult life circumstances, it is thought that addressing the trauma gets to the heart of the matter and thereby resolves other symptoms.  There is a great deal of research that supports the effectiveness of EMDR in treating numerous condition.  Furthermore, the improvements often happen quickly and the benefits are maintained down the road.  Some clients start showing significant improvements in a matter of weeks opposed to years of traditional talk therapy.  EMDR often outperforms the ubiquitous Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

How Does It Help With Sexual Assault?

Because sexual violence is clearly a form of trauma, EMDR is a suitable and obvious treatment option.  When people are traumatized, they become trapped in fight, flight, or freeze mode.  Essentially, the person stays in a survival state and is unable to shake the sense of being in danger even when the threat is not present.  It may be difficult to move forward in life, trust oneself or others, or feel confident and relaxed.  People who have experienced sexual violence frequently develop PTSD and experience intense trauma symptoms that can become chronic.  Because EMDR is designed to fundamentally change the circuitry of the brain, it takes a memory that causes a great deal of distress and reduces or even eliminate the residual negative emotions attached.  People who have been traumatized often recall the memory with a great deal of pain.  Those who have been successfully treated by EMDR will say that the once traumatic memory becomes more distant and ceases to control them the way it once did.  The fear, anger, self-reproach, guilt and helplessness associated with being victimized start to fall away as the brain reestablishes its equilibrium.  Instead of continuously being conditioned by the past, the person is able to live in the present and feel more in charge of their life.

Is It An Effective Therapy For Sexual Assault?

There is a large body of evidence proving that EMDR is effective in treating trauma.  Sexual violence is no exception.  Psychiatrists have noticed marked improvements in as little as three to four sessions in clients who have been carefully screened and deemed to be appropriate for therapy.  This not only reduces the duration of suffering but is also cost effective.  Improvements included a reduction in distress associate with the memories, as well as an increase in self-confidence and feeling more in control.

A 2018 study published in Counseling Outcome Research and Evaluation examined the efficiency of EMDR in twenty-one women who had been sexually assaulted.  The participants received eight EMDR sessions and were evaluated pre and post treatment.  Participants showed statistically significant improvements in depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress, as well as an overall improvement in general wellbeing.   Other studies have shown that using EMDR as an early intervention shortly after rape may prevent the development of PTSD.

What Are The Risks?

EMDR is a safe therapy when conducted according to the therapeutic protocols.  It does, however, have some potential side effects due to the intensity of the process.  EMDR raises a person’s awareness which may cause different uncomfortable symptoms.  These side effects should be short lived and fade as the memories are processed across the course of treatment.  Possible side effects include the surfacing of additional traumas, a general feeling of rawness or emotional vulnerability, intense emotional states, vivid dreams, discomfort during the session and feeling tired afterwards.  Be sure to work with a therapist trained in EMDR and keep an open line of communication to work through any difficulties.

How To Find EMDR Therapy

While EMDR trained therapists are more prevalent in larger cities, they are much less common than traditional psychotherapists and it may be more of a challenge to find a qualified practitioner in other locations.  Luckily, there options even if there is not an EMDR therapist near you.  Online therapy and even self-guided EMDR are additional options.

If you wish to see a therapist in person, an internet search will let you know if there is someone in your area. The EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) website has an online search tool to look for certified EMDR providers.  (Keep in mind that becoming certified is not necessary; there are qualified EMDR therapists who never received a certification.)  Getting a referral from your health care provider or a recommendation from a family member or friend are other options.

If you are unable to find a therapist near you, online treatment is another option.  We recommend the virtual platform BetterHelp which offers EMDR therapy completely online.  The website has over 25,000 practitioners worldwide and many are trained in EMDR.  BetterHelp charges a monthly subscription which makes the therapy more cost-effective than paying for individual sessions.  The website will give you a short questionnaire to complete which will help match you with the appropriate professional. EMDR Healing readers get a 15% discount.

Self-guided EMDR has emerged as a new treatment option with the aid of modern technology.  This is a viable option for those who are unable to find or afford a therapist, live in a remote location, or would prefer to work independently.  The virtual tool is based on standard EMDR protocol and  follows the same stages that an EMDR therapist would employ.  We recommend VirtualEMDR for self-administered EMDR therapy.  Self-guided treatment also allows you to work at your own pace and at your convenience.  Read our full review

For an in depth discussion of self-guided EMDR,  read our article here.


EMDR is a tried and tested method that is effective in treating trauma both quickly and efficiently.  It is an excellent option for those who have experienced sexual assault.  The treatment not only helps neutralize the traumatic memory but it also helps increase confidence, a sense of control, and general wellbeing.  If you are interested in EMDR, use our tips to find a therapist either in person or online, or access a virtual tool for the self-administered option.


  • Mary-Beth Zolik, M.Ed LMHC

    Mary-Beth is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with a M.Ed in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from the University of Montevallo. Mary-Beth has been in the field of psychology in a variety of roles for the past 20 years.

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